A few first steps against sexual violence

Jim McDonough
Jim McDonough is a Ramsey County commissioner.
MPR file photo

The prevention of sexual violence in Minnesota is one of my top priorities. As a Ramsey County commissioner I have many responsibilities, so perhaps you wonder whether I've had a personal experience that put sexual violence prevention at the top of my agenda. I'd have to answer yes -- but the details of that experience might surprise you. Essentially, I woke up.

Two years ago I attended a National Association of County Organizations conference in Washington D.C., where I heard a powerful presentation by Cordelia Anderson, a sexual violence prevention consultant from Minnesota. Her presentation brought to my attention the normalization of sexual violence and the losses Minnesotans suffer as a result. More importantly, I realized that sexual violence is preventable.

As a man, an elected official, a community member, a husband and a father, I woke up to a simple question: Why are so many of our citizens willing to perpetrate sexual violence on one another?

I learned that environment matters. We raise our children in a culture that commodifies and normalizes sexual exploitation and victimization. We routinely expose our young people to a confusing mix of sex and violence in entertainment, advertising, product design and media. We reinforce gender stereotypes that harm both men and women by promoting inequality. These are powerful factors that create social norms, and they are in our power to change.

Before the conference, sexual violence prevention was not in my vocabulary or on my agenda. Now I'm convinced that talking respectfully about sexuality in Minnesota needs to be as easy as talking about hockey.

I soon saw that all 22 Ramsey County departments have a role to play in sexual violence prevention. As president of the Association of Minnesota Counties, I've also urged the state's 87 counties to assess their roles. Hennepin, Wabasha, Olmsted and St. Louis counties have now adopted action plans for sexual violence prevention.

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Sexual violence is not an epidemic -- it hasn't spiked; it is endemic -- steady. Once you see the environmental factors that feed the steady toll that sexual violence takes on our citizens, your only choice is how you will respond.

Minnesota is responding. The Minnesota Department of Health has developed a detailed sexual violence prevention plan that gives Minnesota leaders a role in changing the environment.

Another part of Minnesota's response is the first Minnesota summit on sexual violence prevention, scheduled for Dec. 3 and 4 in St. Paul. Invited leaders from industry, government, faith organizations, media, philanthropy and the nonprofit sector will share best practices and develop strategies for sexual violence prevention.

Sponsoring organizations include the Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault, the Minnesota Departments of Health, Education, Human Services, Corrections, and Public Safety, as well as the Mayo Clinic. The Minnesota Summit is the first in the nation and will precede a national summit to be held next year in Washington.

I'm proud of Minnesota. Our cities and counties are in the forefront of promoting a healthy environment that gives all Minnesotans the opportunity to live up to their full potential. Corporate leaders are creating safe and respectful work environments. All Minnesotans have a role in countering the normalization of sexual harm in our state.

There's a lot we can do. But for many of us, the first thing we have to do is wake up.

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Jim McDonough is a Ramsey County commissioner.